At Animal Aid, we didn't expect cheers and backslaps from shooting interests in response to our newly launched campaign that calls for gun magazines to be consigned to top shelf positions in newsagents, and for their sale to be restricted to persons over the age of 18.
And sure enough, the gun lobby has responded with outrage and bafflement.
But let's consider the matter rationally: the magazines we're talking about feature shooters posing boastfully alongside animals they have just slaughtered. Grinning young children are shown holding up or standing over shot pheasants, rabbits, foxes and pigeons. A recent edition of one of these magazines features 20 freshly shot foxes laid out in neat rows by a young boy and his father. The caption reads: 'Happy Shooters'. In another publication, the vanquished are 327 pigeons – killed in six hours by two triumphant young men from Suffolk.
Magazines that feature photographs of naked women are consigned to the top shelf because they are generally thought to objectify females, thereby encouraging disrespectful attitudes. When it comes to wild animals, what more perfect way is there to objectify them, to erase their intrinsic worth, than to use them as targets and then pose triumphantly beside their dead bodies?
Peter Squires, Professor of Criminology and Public Policy at the University of Brighton, puts the matter succinctly: "Fostering healthy and environmentally-conscious attitudes to nature and wildlife conservation is fundamentally inconsistent with deriving pleasure and enjoyment from shooting animals for fun." Professor Squires joins us in wanting to see such magazines kept out of the hands of impressionable children.
Another supporter is Jeffrey Masson, bestselling author of nine books on the emotional lives of animals. He told us: "I find the whole idea of encouraging young people to shoot animals for pleasure completely insane and, believe me, I rarely use the word insane."
Why are these animals killed, if not for the sheer pleasure of killing them? The usual justification offered to non-shooters is that the animals concerned are pests, vermin or "alien species" – which invariably means any animal who interferes with the commercial or leisure pursuits of powerful sectional interests, including the game bird industry, forestry, agribusiness or fisheries. Or else killing them is of itself pleasurable and profitable.
The list of species that fall into these categories is frighteningly long: rabbits, pigeons, Canada geese, deer, boar, mink, cormorants, rats, wildfowl, grey squirrels, foxes, stoats, weasels, crows, magpies, pheasants, partridges, gulls, moles, hedgehogs, badgers, raptors and so on. Of course, while endlessly and energetically pursued, the killing of so-called pests doesn't 'work' because the gap created is filled by more of the same species. Balanced populations of animals can be achieved only in the context of a healthy, ecologically balanced environment.
Some of the gun magazines themselves take a stab at arguing for reasoned slaughter, but they invariably forget themselves. The July 2012 issue of Sporting Gun, for instance, carried a three-page feature on pigeon killing, in which the author lamented that, in his part of Essex, he could find no birds to shoot. The reason always offered for killing pigeons is that they damage crops. But the birds couldn't be seen on the author's home patch, which left him deeply disappointed. "…he's raring to go,' read the headline, 'but where are all the pigeons?"
Even more transparent was the lavishly illustrated tale, in the Summer 2012 issue of Sporting Rifle, of a man who went to South Africa and, aided by specialist commercial hunters, lured a male lion with bait and shot him twice through the lungs and once through the heart. He was exultant, his "dream fulfilled". And remember, this vicious, celebratory tale is to be found on newsagent shelves across the UK.
The killing of pheasants and partridges is uncomplicatedly done for sport. Some 50 million are reared each year in cages, sheds and pens and used as feathered targets. Industry figures show that it costs around 13 times more to rear and get a pheasant airborne than the shot pheasant will fetch retail. "Only" about 18 million of the 50 million are, in any case, shot and retrieved. The rest perish from disease, starvation, predation, or under motor vehicles. Efficient food production it is not.
So what we are left with is a mighty enterprise of killing for pleasure. Cutting off children's access to the gun magazines that promote and celebrate the slaughter would be a wholly positive development. It's one that could deal a serious blow to a gun lobby that is desperate to recruit youngsters – not least through the pages of such magazines – to counter a declining constituency. Government figures show shotgun certificate holder numbers in England and Wales have fallen at a significant rate for more than 20 years. And the gun lobby's own research shows that if people do not learn to shoot by age 14 the chances of them getting involved rapidly diminish. No wonder the gun lobby finds Animal Aid's 'top shelf' campaign so troubling.